WORKERS UNITED – new exhibition celebrates the 150th anniversary of the TUC

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Workers United

The TUC Library is launching its new exhibition “WORKERS UNITED” at the 150th Anniversary Conference – Retrospect and Prospects – at the Mechanics Institute in Manchester this Friday 1st June https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/tuc150-retrospect-and-prospects-tickets-42781768421

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Walter Citrine part 3 – Citrine as the Acting General Secretary, November 1925

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Our guest blogger Dr James Moher  (former CWU & T&GWU official) completes his series with the final part of his article on Walter Citrine in Russia.

Having to cut short his visit in such dramatic circumstances, Citrine arrived back in London to find himself heading up the TUC at a time of cataclysmic events. The threat of ‘Triple Alliance’ sympathetic industrial action in support of the miners by road and rail unions’ was enough to extract major concessions from the government on ‘Red Friday’ in July 1925. Unplanned, the conflict escalated into the General Strike called by the TUC General Council in May 1926. This time, the government’s reaction was to treat the strike as a constitutional challenge with an ultimatum to call it off under threat of a military response. This brought the General Council leadership ‘up short’ and all those who had gone along with the emotional appeal of solidarity with the miners, now pulled back and called it off. As Acting General

Secretary, Citrine too had been swept along initially by the emotional mood – he had advised the committee responsible to prepare more effectively for the confrontation. But now as officer to the lead negotiators, he and the chair of the General Council, Arthur Pugh (Steelworkers), had to deliver the humiliating decision to call it off to Prime Minister Baldwin.

That decision met no understanding in the USSR, despite all that the TUC had done to support the Russian unions. They had pressed large sums on the TUC to pursue the ‘class war’ for the miners, but the General Council felt it would be portrayed as ‘Russian gold’ and so had to be declined. The reason for this hostile attitude by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), seems to have been that Tomsky’s entire conciliatory approach had become a major issue in the power struggles within that ruling Party. The Opposition belaboured the CPSU leadership with having ‘banked’ on the TUC Lefts. Now, the very different Red International of Labour Unions’ leadership of Tomsky’s rival, Solomon Losovsky and their far Left supporters in Britain, poured torrents of abuse on the TUC. The virulence of these attacks appalled even those Left General Councillors such as Purcell, Hicks and Swales, who were now reviled. By 1927, everyone on the TUC General Council concluded that they could not go on with Anglo/Russian committee. Citrine, (now substantive General Secretary)’s report to the Edinburgh Congress recommended that it be discontinued, and that was overwhelmingly carried.

This account recalls a most interesting episode of TUC involvement in international affairs after the Russian Revolution in 1917. It adds to the TUC Library Collections’ vivid portrayal of the links which the TUC leadership at that time sought to develop. It recalls the hopes and possibilities which motivated many of Britain’s union leaders and activists for what they saw as ‘a land of promise’ and ‘a great experiment’. Today, when Russia is again widely viewed as a ‘fallen idol’, it may surprise that such sentiments were so widely entertained in Britain. Were the TUC just deluding themselves in thinking that by embracing the Russian unions, the unity of the international labour movement could have been restored to the benefit of workers throughout the world? Was Russian union leader, Mikhail Tomsky’s overture simply a different communist ploy to gain access to the western workers for revolutionary ends? Or was he genuinely seeking to strengthen the position of unions in the USSR with this international union link-up, so that they could more effectively shape the society then emerging from the Revolution in the USSR? Whatever the answers, given what followed – one party ‘communist’ dictatorship in USSR, fascism in Germany, Italy and Spain, the Great Depression in USA and Europe, all leading to a second war of carnage and destruction – did it not have the possibility of ‘a road not taken’?

We shall never know, but the episode highlights the important role trade unions began to play in the history of the twentieth century. They were perhaps, the only institutions which could reach across the ideological and nationalistic gulfs then opening up in the aftermath of the First World War. Walter Citrine, as the new General Secretary of the TUC would be at the centre of those continuing efforts for peace and democracy, over the next couple of decades.

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